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More than two decades after making his Public Radio debut, David Sedaris remains the preeminent humorist of his day, as popular with gay audiences as he is with straight ones. His books Holidays on Ice, Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked, to name a few, are perennial best sellers of the genre. With his new collection, Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls, the literary funny man turns his rapier wit on a host of subjects including aging, straight men, taxidermy, and, as always, his own family. Sedaris possesses a keen ability to satirize broadly, but he’s at his best when he’s zeroed in on the quieter moments of life. The foibles of his own character, for instance, or when discussing the sometimes-motley fans he enjoys teasing on a nearly nightly basis. The busy author took a break from his hectic tour schedule to chat with Lambda while on a recent visit to San Francisco. We spoke at length about the enduring power of camp, the importance of keeping up appearances and the difficulties of life on the road.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I know it’s been a bit of a headache to arrange this.
We were supposed to do it a while ago. I think that day my flight was cancelled. I was going from St. Louis to Des Moines, Iowa. I never learned to drive, so they put me in the back of a car for six hours. I got to the theater and the power was out, so I read with a flashlight and no microphone. The next day my flight got cancelled again, and I had to hire a private jet to get to Louisville, Kentucky. It cost $10,000.
That’s no joke.
Yeah, and the theater doesn’t pay for it. There’s just been a lot of days like that. I’m not complaining, though. Far be it for me to complain.
I first found out that this interview was going to happen while I was in the bathroom, and I wanted to know what was the best news you ever received while on the toilet?
I don’t think I’ve ever received any news on the toilet. I don’t have a cell phone. Hugh, my boyfriend, has been mad at me because he says that this trip I’ve been writing in people’s books the kinds of things you’d find on a bathroom wall. I learned this Romanian curse and it’s one of the things I’ve been writing in people’s books. It translates to “I shit in your mother’s mouth.” It’s a good curse, isn’t it? I explained to someone the other day, “Look, I’m not actually going to do this. I’m just writing it down so you can remember it.”
I have a friend who the only bit of Spanish he knows is essentially that.
Well, my Spanish version is “me cago en la fiche de tu madre,” which is “I shit in your mother’s pussy.” Somebody taught me that. But, again, I tell people, “Look, I’m not really going to do this.” The week before last I wrote, “I shit in your mother’s mouth,” in this guy’s book, and the guy said, “My mother’s dead.” I said, “Well, I’m gonna dig her up. I’m gonna dig your mother up, and I’m going to open her casket, and I’m going to kneel over her face and I’m going to shit in your dead mother’s mouth. How would you like that?”
You really want to make sure they keep coming back, don’t you?
Well, I said it in the nicest possible way. I think I’m pretty good at scoping people out. Every now and then I make a mistake and realize it too late. Like this kid wanted me to write something filthy and insulting in his mother’s book. He was 19 years old, right? So I thought for a moment then I wrote to his mother—let’s say the guy’s name was Jason and his mother’s name was Susan. I wrote, “Dear Susan, Jason left teeth marks in my dick.” And then his face, it was like “what did you just do?”
Hugh gets really mad at me for stuff like that, but I mean, look, he asked me. I put some thought into it. I mean, don’t ask me if that’s not what you want, or if what you want is some watered down version of it.
There’s been a lot of talk about how as gay rights become more and more prevalent there’s a loss of the subversive or the camp side, but it strikes me that something like that—and someone like you who writes for a popular audience and who offends people in a good-hearted way—that’s how camp lives on forever.
I was at lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friend Ted. He’s my oldest friend. I’ve known him since junior high school. The waiter brought the dessert menu, and I said, “Do you wanna split a dessert?” So anyway, Ted and I split this coconut cream pie. I looked around the room and there were two other men also sharing a piece of pie. And I thought, Straight men don’t do that. So I started polling straight men while signing books. This one guy said, “You know a plate of Buffalo wings is one thing, but dessert, that’s just crossing a line.” I talked to this other guy, and he said, “You know it’s so funny you should ask. I just had dinner with a buddy and we shared a dessert, and we made a point of telling the waitress that we weren’t gay.” I’ve gotten in the habit of eating dinner while I’m signing books. So now, last night I had steak. I was sitting at my signing table and when an obviously straight man would come up I’d say, “Can you cut me a piece of steak while I sign your book? Now, I need you to fork it into my mouth.” I worry that it’s too aggressive, but I just think it’s funny to make straight men feed me. If it gave me an erection, then I would feel bad about it, but it doesn’t. It just makes me laugh.
As an essayist, do you have a line you won’t cross?
So there’s a new story I wrote and it’s about my three sisters coming to visit for Christmas. And, believe me, my sisters said some things over Christmas that were horrible. They’re really funny and shocking, but I wouldn’t write them. Even if they died, I wouldn’t put those things in a story because it’s private. I’m pretty good about that. I just don’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt. On the other hand, you know how sometimes there’s the one person in the family who keeps all the self-esteem for himself? That’s my dad. My dad doesn’t have any doubts about the kind of parent he was. He’s proud of it. You’ve never met anybody with more self-esteem. You can’t hurt someone like that.
We first encounter your father in this collection as someone to be feared, but by the end you’ve reached a kind of equilibrium. Do you think gay men, in particular, are reaching a new understanding with their fathers?
I’m 56, and for most my lifetime it was understood that even a horrible straight person was better than a gay person. Not too many people believe that anymore. That can allow for a kind of forgiveness or a deeper understanding. Part of it can just be getting older. This 18 year-old kid, a relative of Hugh’s, came to visit us in England last summer. And he was such a nerd, this kid. You just wanted to correct him on every possible level. I found myself getting so frustrated with him and I thought, Oh, that’s what my dad must’ve felt in regards to me. I think my dad felt that there was just no place in the world for me, that I was just such an unpopular [kid], such a nerdy mess, that if he could mold me into a different kind of person maybe I would stand a chance. I can see that now. When I was having those feelings toward that young man that was visiting, I thought, Well, maybe that’s what my dad was feeling all those years. He was trying in the only way he knew how to mold me into his idea of a likeable person. I much prefer that view of my dad. And I wrote him about it after this relative of Hugh’s left. I wrote him about it and I said I think I understand now. When I watch my brother with his daughter it’s just beautiful. She’s not afraid of him. I hung out with my brother and my niece a couple of months ago and that was the first thing that struck me. We were terrified of our father.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the story “A Guy Walks Into a Bar Car.” At its heart it’s a story about respecting yourself before you can love someone else. It’s a universally important sentiment, but it seems especially resonant for gay people. Do you ever tailor your writing for a particular demographic?
I don’t feel I tailor to the crowd. If I write about Hugh, for instance, I write in the sense of trying to make a life with someone in a way everyone can relate to it. I’m not hiding anything. Sex just isn’t my subject. I remember I was in Paris and Edmund White did a reading at this place called the Village Voice Bookshop. The audience was maybe 10% gay people, and when he read you could see people were like, “He just talked about sucking somebody’s dick; I didn’t sign up for this.” I don’t think it’s fair that they freaked out. When a straight couple kisses in a movie you don’t see us go, “ewww.” So, on the one hand, it only seems fair. But I just don’t write that way. In that story, [“A Guy Walks Into a Bar Car”] I felt like anybody could relate. It’s just a story about an opportunity that you didn’t take, and for the rest of your life when things get bad you think, “If only I would’ve picked that person up.” When you’re brooding over an alcoholic straight guy, that’s when you’ve hit bottom.
Do these people from your past ever resurface?
There’s a story in the book about being on the swim team, and there was this kid on the team who my dad would not shut up about. I was so jealous of the kid. Well, the story was in the New Yorker, so the fact checker tracked him down. He has a business selling sex toys in North Carolina.
I bet you didn’t anticipate that.
I did not.
It’s funny that you should bring up childhood friends because in the book you seem almost proud of the fact that you don’t have any friends now.
I lived in Chicago from 1984 to 1990 and I think that was a time in my life when I had the greatest friends. Then I moved to New York and I met Hugh and I kind of stopped trying. Most of my friends now are friends that I had from Raleigh. I met my best friend my first day of college in 1975. These people I’m in constant contact with. I met a couple of friends when I moved to Paris, but I’m more of a cat friend than a dog friend. I have my schedule and my deadlines, and those come first, and it’s understood that those come first. I’ll talk to you, but not during my office hours. I’m not an available friend.
I assume you met Ira Glass in Chicago.
I met Ira at a reading in Chicago, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York that I got involved with NPR. He called me one day and asked if I wanted to be on the radio.
A lot of people on radio insure their voices, since you have a very distinct voice that makes up a large portion of your career, do you insure yours?
Nobody has ever asked that before. No, uh-uh. I met a guy the other day when I was signing books. I remarked on his voice. He’d had a horrible accident or cancer or something. I said, “Can they do that to me too? Can I recreate that accident?” I mean, I don’t want the cancer, but can I get that treatment on my throat? It just sounded fantastic. If I were to call room service right now and order something they’d say, “We’ll have that right up to you, ma’am.” I guarantee it. I don’t think I sound like a woman. I was on tour last year and this guy in the audience said, “You know I’ve been listening to you and then all of a sudden it hit me: This guy sounds like a Muppet!” That’s closer to it. I sound like a Muppet. I don’t mind the softness of my voice; it just has that Kermit quality to it. That’s what I want to say to people: “Don’t you know the difference between a Muppet and a woman?”
While preparing for this interview, I was happy to discover that you’re a bit of a clotheshorse. What’s your favorite recent acquisition and why?
I heart Union Made on Sanchez Street, here in San Francisco. Have you ever been?
No. I’m still pretty new to the city.
Best men’s clothing store in the United States. And I travel around, so I can say that with authority. They stock these Japanese brands that I’ve only seen in Tokyo. I went there on Friday, and with no trouble at all I spent $1,100. In general, I love looking at clothes even if they’re not for me. When I was in Reno the other night, my most commonly asked question was, “Why did you wear that t-shirt?” I couldn’t believe people had paid 50 bucks for a ticket and they would dress like they’d been mowing their lawn and then all of a sudden they were transported into the theater. I mean, if they didn’t have a “Shirts Required” rule, who knows what people might’ve been wearing? I met this woman and she was wearing [this] t-shirt—it was her good Count Chocula t-shirt. I said, “I don’t mean to be giving you a hard time, but I’m just curious: Will you wear anything to the grocery store?” And she said, “Yeah, I figure who’s gonna notice?”
Have you ever thought about instituting a dress policy for your readings?
[Laughs] We’ll, I’m curious to see tonight. Usually San Francisco audiences are the best dressed. One of the show business rules that I figured out years ago: You should always be better dressed than the audience. I was on stage a couple of weeks ago and I saw a five-year-old in the audience. And I thought, Well, I have to say the word cunt tonight, and I’m still going to say it. If you come on stage with a tie on, people will say, what an interesting word choice. You have a t-shirt on and you say the word cunt, and people say, “Ugh, filthy, this guy is filthy.”
In the new book you write about going to a big box retailer to buy condoms to hand out at your readings. Do you plan on distributing any goodies tonight?
Yeah, I bought some taffy at the Ferry Terminal. This guy from Salt Lake City gave me these cards a couple of days ago. They’re vintage, about the size of business cards, and they have flowers on them, and they say: “You’re too cute to smoke. A message from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” Mormons. Those are really special, so I’ll give those to special people.
You’ve been called America’s pre-eminent humorist. Who’s out there that you think, This person’s got talent?
Lena Dunham. I love her essays in the New Yorker. I think they’re really well crafted, and I think they’re funny. She throws in these really surprising, profound details that turn something that could’ve been ordinary into something else. I think she’s really talented.
Have you had a chance to meet her?
Yeah, I’m going to do a reading with her at Carnegie Hall in New York. I just wrote her because with an on-stage reading there’s nothing much for the audience to look at. I proposed to Lena that for Carnegie Hall, what I would like to do is hire two women to breastfeed on stage during the reading. It’s exactly the right amount of activity. When you see a woman breastfeeding you want to stare, but you feel like you can’t. This way you could stare all you want. Probably after five minutes you’d think, Okay, there’s nothing really going on. I think I’ve seen it all. I’d like a black woman and a white woman, or maybe Hispanic. I’d like them to be different races, and I’d like them to be on either side of the podium breastfeeding.
Yeah, I don’t want them in chairs. I want them standing. With spotlights.